Several years ago I wrote a piece about my old GE portable radio. It was just a cheap portable AM/FM/cassette which got lugged around to keep me company while I was painting or doing chores. That radio eventually got relegated to the kitchen and was usually tuned (to the best of its ability) to the local NPR station during dinner prep. Cathy unplugged it yesterday, told me it was emitting a hum which made her nervous, handed it to me and I realized it was finally time to retire it.
Ever since we cancelled cable TV, we've been re-evaluating the media we consume every day. Radio is now more important again (thank the Gods!), and living in a fringe area (more than 60 miles from transmitters) reduces the number of stations we can receive well. This makes a good tuner the most important characteristic I'm after next to price.
As I've already discovered with my HDTV experiments, we're really not in a good location for digital reception and this applies to radio as well. Radio has been moving slowly to "HD Radio" (which doesn't stand for "Hi-Def" by the way) but there is no mandate from the FCC to make any changes and lots of broadcast engineers see HD as a cheap trick. Since each station is given only a certain amount of bandwidth, stations that offer multiple channels have to compress their signal on each to fit, in audio terms you might end up with the quality of a 128K instead of a 192K mp3 file for the audio which is a very noticeable audio degradation. Once you hear it you can't "unhear" it. Also, while you don't need as much signal to pull in an HD station, the FCC mandates the power it can be transmitted at be much lower than analog (due to the interference it causes to neighboring stations) so as result I might end up receiving less than half of the stations I now get in HD and perhaps none. Besides, HD radios aren't cheap, at least not yet.
Since Cathy was quite literally handing the radio problem to me, I set to work to get what I wanted, without any consideration for what she might want. As my friend John Trubisz always said, "offer to do their thinking for them". I listed out the things I thought were important.
- under $100
- the best possible receiver for the money
- shortwave (for BBC and VOA) as well as AM and FM
- knobs and fine tuning ability (not a digital tuner)
- "HD" radio is not important
- portable (we don't have an audio rack)
- external antenna jack in case we get sucky reception with the built in antenna
- stereo out in case we do want to amplify
- rugged case - the last one I bought lasted 20 years
I finally decided on an Eton Grundig S350. Not the original model, reviewed well here, but the updated model (in black) made after they changed the original behavior which would shut the radio down in 90 minutes whether you ran it on batteries or not. Although the radio has a digital display, it is NOT a digital tuner - you turn a big knob to tune (and fine tune, the knob has two rings) and in fact that's part of the allure for me - this is a radio that harkens back to the '80s overbuilt aesthetic with large knobs and switches that old folks can see and use easily. There is an auto-tune functionality, but the ability to turn that off and manually tune in weaker stations is a big plus. The auto-on feature allows the radio to turn on at a preset time so that it functions like an alarm clock. I'm hoping this won't sour the deal for Cathy who might be wanting the "presets" and buttons of a digital tuner, since this is obviously a radio that harkens back to a time when people enjoyed using a radio and fiddling with it, searching for new stuff. I'm looking forward to checking out the shortwave bands (I've always been into scanning) to see if we can pick up the BBC or Voice of America. I'm also hoping this radio can pull in WFUV (90.7) out of NYC in addition to all our local stations.
I'll update this post when it arrives!
Update Jan 26, 2010 Got home today and excitedly opened the package that had arrived, only to notice seconds later that the plastic clip that holds the antenna was broken! What a let down... there weren't any pieces of it in the box, so it looks like it was either returned to stock broken or shipped from the factory that way. The radio worked pretty well (of course I had to try it out) - I was able to pull in WFUV (90.7) from Fordham University in the city without much problem, and I managed to pull in a few shortwave stations as well - but I quickly boxed it back up so I can ship it back to them tomorrow. Grrr.
Update Jan 29, 2010 The replacement arrived yesterday in fine condition, and my return was received by them this morning. Amazon gets high marks for fast turn around here. On the new one, while the antenna holder (a molded plastic part of the radio) is undamaged, looks to have been designed to hold a thicker antenna and so, in its fully retracted position, the antenna is not held by it at all! I can get around this by extending the antenna just a bit so the clip grabs on the second of the telescoping sections of antenna, but this fubbed up detail didn't impress me much. The tuner works exceedingly well. The radio has good tone and is pretty darn loud to boot. It was nice being able to listen to the news and some classical music last night on it. I even tooled around shortwave a bit, but much to my dismay it turns out the BBC stopped broadcasting in shortwave to much of the world just two years ago! They decided to use that money to fund an Arabic BBC television instead - I was really looking forward to sucking down BBC with it, but theres still hope that I can pull in their West African transmission, because thats supposedly a possibility on the east coast, but I didn't run across it last night. Might be cool to listen to some German stations though.